WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama, under fierce election-year fire, on Friday abruptly abandoned his stand that religious organizations must pay for birth control for workers, scrambling to end a furor raging from the Catholic Church to Congress to his re-election foes. He demanded that insurance companies step in to provide the coverage instead.
Obama's compromise means ultimately that women would still get birth control without having to pay for it, no matter where they work. The president insisted he had stuck by that driving principle even in switching his approach, and the White House vehemently rejected any characterization that Obama had retreated under pressure.
Yet there was no doubt that Obama had found himself in an untenable position. He needed to walk back fast and find another route to his goal.
The controversy over contraception and religious liberty was overshadowing his agenda, threatening to alienate key voters and giving ammunition to the Republicans running for his job. It was a mess that knocked the White House off its message and vision for a second term.
Leaders from opposite sides of the divisive debate said they supported the outcome _ or at least suggested they probably could live with it. Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, the head of the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops and a fierce critic of the original rule covering hospitals and other employers, said the bishops were reserving judgment but that Obama's move was a good first step.
The bishops' organization later issued a far more skeptical critique contending that the new approach offered insufficient protections for religious employers and calling that unacceptable.
Republicans hoping to oust Obama from the White House were conceding nothing. Though not mentioning the birth control issue, Newt Gingrich assailed the president's views of religious rights and said ``I frankly don't care what deal he tries to cut. ... If he wins re-election, he will wage war on the Catholic Church the morning after he's re-elected.''
Mitt Romney, the front-runner in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, said the decision didn't change anything.
"Today he did the classic Obama retreat, all right, and what I mean by that is it wasn't a retreat at all. It's another deception,'' Romney said while campaigning in Maine.
Obama, acknowledging he wanted a resolution to the controversy, ordered advisers to find a middle ground in days, not within a year as had been the plan before the uproar. He said he spoke as a Christian who cherishes religious freedom and as a president unwilling to give up on free contraceptive care.
"I've been confident from the start that we could work out a sensible approach here, just as I promised,'' Obama said. ``I understand some folks in Washington may want to treat this as another political wedge issue, but it shouldn't be. I certainly never saw it that way.''
Under the new plan, religious employers such as charities, universities and hospitals will not have to offer contraception and will not have to refer their employees to places that provide it. If an employer opts out of the requirement, its insurance company must provide birth control for free in a separate arrangement with workers who want it.
"Very pleased,'' was how Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, reacted in a statement distributed by the White House. Her trade group represents Catholic hospitals that had fought against the birth control requirement, and Keehan said the new arrangement addresses the concerns it had.
In searching for a way out of the crisis, Obama also had to be mindful not to anger many women and fellow Democrats.
Planned Parenthood, a prominent women's health organization, said Obama had reaffirmed his commitment to birth control coverage. The group's president, Cecile Richards, added, though, that it would be monitoring "rigorous, fair and consistent'' enforcement so women get the promised coverage.